Remarks as prepared for delivery.
Thank you Secretary Salazar. Today marks another significant step forward in the government’s work to fulfill our trust obligation for hundreds of thousands of individual Native Americans. Cobell v. Salazar is one of the largest class actions ever brought against the U.S. government. What began in 1996 has seen 7 full trials constituting 192 trial days; has resulted in 22 published judicial decisions; has been up to the Court of Appeals ten times; and has been the subject of intense, and sometimes difficult, litigation.
But today, we turn the page.
The settlement announced today, which will require legislative and judicial approval to become effective, is fair to the plaintiffs, responsible for the United States, and provides a path forward for the future.
If approved, it will resolve the plaintiffs’ claims for an historical accounting for funds that the government held in trust for Native Americans and resolve potential claims alleging that, over decades, the government has mismanaged the acres of land and millions of dollars that it holds in trust for Native Americans. Between the accounting claims and the trust administration claims, the plaintiff class will receive approximately $1.4 billion.
The settlement also establishes a new land consolidation program that provides critical benefits to every party. F or individuals who own a small amount of land and wish to sell it, it will put money directly into their hands. The tribes that will ultimately own these newly consolidated interests will have productive assets that they can finally put to beneficial economic use. And over time, the Department of Interior will reduce the hundreds of thousands of small accounts that it has been managing.
Now as I mentioned, the settlement is not final. It requires authorization from Congress and approval from the court. Like many settlements, this agreement is contingent on the enactment of legislation to approve it. We believe that Congress should move forward with this legislation as quickly as possible.
The settlement also requires approval from the court. Once legislation has passed, the parties will present their proposed settlement to the court, and will begin the process of explaining it to class members across the country. Those individuals and others will have an opportunity to review the settlement and express their views on it, and the court will ultimately decide whether it represents a fair resolution of the claims.
I think it is important to note that over 13 years, the parties have tried to settle this case many, many times, each time unsuccessfully. The United States could have continued to litigate this case, at great expense to the taxpayers. It could have let all of these claims linger, and could even have let the problem of fractionated land continue to grow with each generation. But with this settlement, we are erasing these past liabilities and getting on track to eliminate them going forward.
It is my belief that we have finally been successful for three reasons:
First, this Administration, led by Secretary Salazar, has stepped up to the plate and made clear that it was turning the page on this chapter of history. Between the settlement and the trust reform measures that the Secretary is announcing today, this Administration is taking concrete steps to redefine the government’s relationship with Native Americans.
Second, our colleagues on Capitol Hill have made clear, over many years, that they would be full partners in this effort to turn the page. Senator Byron Dorgan, Senator John McCain, and many others have shown that they would provide the support necessary to bring this to resolution. We thank them for that, and we will look to them for support in the legislative process to come.
Finally, the government is able to settle this case on responsible terms because of the unbelievable dedication, professionalism and pure talent of innumerable professionals at the Department of Interior, Department of Treasury, and Department of Justice. They have done some magnificent work in serving their country, and I and the American people owe them our thanks. I would like to single out Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli, who is on stage with us today, who has personally spent many long hours at the negotiation table.
This settlement is a successful resolution for the American people, and I hope that it will receive the necessary approvals to move forward. Thank you.